Northern Ireland: Five games that defined Michael O'Neill's reign

By Matt GaultBBC Sport NI
Michael O'Neill
O'Neill joined Stoke City in November

When Michael O'Neill succeeded Nigel Worthington at the Northern Ireland helm in December 2011, the Green and White Army were in desperate need of a morale boost.

Having won just two of their previous 24 games, Northern Ireland were in the footballing wilderness.

After a dreary Euro 2012 qualifying campaign which yielded nine points from 10 games, O'Neill was tasked with overseeing a dramatic reversal in fortunes.

And while the NI supporters had quiet optimism for the man who brought a part-time Shamrock Rovers side to the Europa League group stages, few could have predicted the thrilling transformation that occurred under his watch.

Of course, all good things must end, and with O'Neill currently undertaking a similarly sizeable rebuild at Championship strugglers Stoke City, his reign at Windsor Park has drawn to a close.

The 50-year-old will be regarded as one of the most significant figures in Northern Ireland's history.

Here are five matches that shaped his time in the dugout.

Northern Ireland 1-0 Russia (2014 World Cup qualifier, 14 August 2013)

595 days. O'Neill's wait for a first win was long, torturous and filled with dispiriting results, the home draws against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan chief among them.

However, when the final whistle blew at Windsor Park to give NI a surprise 1-0 win over Russia, O'Neill's relief was palpable.

So, too, was that of the home supporters in Windsor, who had stuck with the team during the gloomy latter stages of the Worthington era.

Paterson v Russia
Martin Paterson's header gave O'Neill his first win as NI boss

Kyle Lafferty stand-in Martin Paterson was the matchwinner, his first-half header - a maiden competitive international goal - proved enough to edge the Russians and give O'Neill and a confidence-boosting triumph over a tactical titan in Fabio Capello.

Qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil was beyond them, but the Russia scalp provided a platform from which O'Neill could build.

There had been glimpses of giant-killing prowess with a draw in Portugal in October 2012, but this result proved they could topple nations that towered above them in the rankings.

Luxembourg 3-2 Northern Ireland (2014 World Cup qualifier, 11 September 2013)

Russia was Northern Ireland's first win in two years, but O'Neill warned against writing it off as a flash in the pan.

There was no shame in what followed: a 4-2 defeat by a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal in Belfast.

However, when O'Neill's players trudged off the pitch at the Stade Josy Barthel having been bested by lowly Luxembourg, the sceptics could have been forgiven for predicting another downward spiral.

NI lose to Luxembourg
"The performance was unacceptable, the energy and work rate was not at the level required," is how O'Neill assessed his side's 3-2 defeat by Luxembourg

To O'Neill, losing to Luxembourg was unacceptable. After telling the players as much, he labelled the performance "pathetic" and accused his side of lacking "desire and leadership" in a withering post-match assessment.

The fallout was grim. BBC Sport NI's Joel Taggart, who had covered the match for Radio Ulster, heard a disgruntled supporter say: "We're great at David versus Goliath matches, but not so good when it comes to David versus David."

It would prove to be a watershed moment for Northern Ireland.

O'Neill, fed up with ill-discipline and inconsistency, showed his firmer streak. He delivered an ultimatum to Kyle Lafferty, who missed the Luxembourg game after his red card for a reckless challenge on Portugal's Joao Pereira four days prior.

Lafferty wasn't the only player on the receiving end of O'Neill's interpretation of the hairdryer. The boss made clear that the Luxembourg game had to be the nadir. Further toothless displays would not be tolerated.

Northern Ireland 3-1 Greece (Euro 2016 qualifying, 8 October 2015)

Two years removed from the ignominy of Luxembourg, Northern Ireland were virtually unrecognisable.

Having navigated his lowest ebb in charge, O'Neill undertook a daring rebuild that blooded promising young internationals such as Conor McLaughlin, Stuart Dallas and Oliver Norwood and rejuvenated seasoned campaigners Steven Davis, Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes.

Their bid to qualify for the Euros in France began with a bang, securing a first away win in four years in dramatic fashion with a 2-1 win over Hungary in Budapest.

Backing that up with wins over Faroe Islands and Greece maintained their perfect start after three games and, while they lost to Romania, further victories over Finland and the Faroes left NI on the verge of the European Championships for the first time.

Davis v Grrece
Captain Steven Davis scored twice to lead Northern Ireland to a 3-1 win over Greece that secured their place at Euro 2016

A 1-1 draw with Hungary in their penultimate qualifier left them 90 minutes away from the promised land.

Lafferty, a striker reborn, scored his seventh goal of the campaign in the Hungary draw, having gone from enigma to talisman.

O'Neill was hailed as the mastermind behind Lafferty's renaissance, but the coach had little time for acclaim: qualification had yet to be sealed.

NI needed two points from fixtures against Greece and Finland, but they only required one crack at completing the mission.

Played out in front of a bouncing Windsor Park, a Davis double helped lift the Green and White Army to the Euros.

Ukraine 0-2 Northern Ireland (European Championships, 16 June 2016)

History was made, O'Neill's legacy sealed.

He was no longer the exasperated coach trying to make sense of what he witnessed that night in Luxembourg. He was now a legend, taking his place in the pantheon alongside Billy Bingham and Peter Doherty.

All that remained was the small matter of the European Championships.

After a narrow defeat by Poland in Nice, O'Neill delivered his coup de grace in Lyon, with McAuley's header and Niall McGinn's insurance goal deep in added time sinking Ukraine to give Northern Ireland their first-ever win on that stage, and their first tournament win in 34 years.

Ni fans v Ukraine
Northern Ireland fans descended on Lyon for their famous win over Ukraine

That victory over the Ukrainians will forever be regarded as O'Neill's finest hour and the sweet culmination of a meticulously crafted rebuild.

The roars from Northern Ireland's raucous support provided the soundtrack as McAuley thumped Norwood's cross into the net.

It was far from a smash-and-grab. The performance had all the hallmarks of O'Neill's NI: energy, organisation, spirit and finesse.

The campaign may have ended in defeat by Wales, but stunning Ukraine was worth the price of admission alone.

Northern Ireland 2-0 Estonia (Euro 2020 qualifying, 21 March 2019)

On the surface, it may not seem as significant as the other results, but this was an important win for O'Neill.

After the heartache of missing out on World Cup qualification and a Nations League campaign that fell flat, NI had gone 18 months without a win in a competitive international.

O'Neill, now overseeing his fourth full qualifying campaign, was charged with completing a Euro qualifying double.

Having found the net only once in their last four games, NI were low on confidence. Plucky Estonia defended deep and held firm to go in at the break at 0-0.

Niall McGinn
Northern Ireland won their opening four matches of Euro 2020 qualification

With the home fans dreading another blank, McGinn and Josh Magennis popped up with second-half goals to give the qualifying campaign the early shot in the arm it needed.

From there, O'Neill's side chalked off wins home and away wins against Belarus either side of an away success in Tallinn.

Only one point was forthcoming from four games with the Netherlands and Germany, but banking those early points made possible another shot at Euro qualification.

Now all that is left is for O'Neill to deliver one final masterclass. Defeat Bosnia-Herzegovina and see off either the Republic of Ireland or Slovakia and provide the crescendo befitting of his tenure.

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